Some automakers really struggle to redesign a successful product. After they’ve happened upon something that resonates with buyers, too many follow one of two paths toward ruin: They are so reluctant to change anything about the car that it falls behind the times, or they try to broaden its appeal by diluting the qualities and the character that made it desirable in the first place.
The redesigned 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata adroitly avoids both pitfalls. Ever since the first-generation model arrived 26 years ago, the Miata has masterfully retained its focus on relatively affordable and user-friendly driving enjoyment, achieved by eliminating pretty much anything that doesn’t help advance that goal.
The 1990 Miata was conceived as the marriage between the driving thrills of a classic British roadster and the everyday reliability and sensible design of a Japanese economy car. And this Mazda has continued to be a petite, lightweight, driver-focused rear-wheel-drive two-seat convertible with a small engine — to great effect.
Steering remains brilliantly alert, handling remains magically lively. Mazda hasn’t joined the horsepower wars; the 2016 Miata’s 155-hp rating trails plenty of economy cars. It didn’t respond to the SUV craze with an elevated seating position. It didn’t follow most cars in expanding with each generation; the 2016 model is two inches wider than the 1990 and a fraction of an inch taller, but the first-generation is an inch longer longer. Weight has increased by only some 100 pounds (to 2,332) despite bigger wheels, a slightly bigger engine, more amenities, superior crash structure, and four airbags instead of just one. The base price is now $24,915 instead of $13,800, but that’s in line with all cars’ upward price shift; the nation’s best-selling car today, the Toyota Camry, starts at $23,070 now versus $11,588 in 1990.
Yet Mazda hasn’t refused to change. Indeed, the 2016 model is perhaps the most successful of the Miata’s three redesigns – it more finely honed the car’s traditional strengths while broadening its appeal in win-win ways. Gas mileage has soared – the EPA rates it now at 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving and this reviewer topped 38 mpg – but not at the expense of the car’s sporting priorities. The cabin features up-to-date technology and fresher styling, but it’s still defined by elegant simplicity. There’s a little more headroom, but that came from reconfiguring the roof rather than raising it.
Many car-buyers will never warm to the Miata. Two-seat cars with tiny trunks have an inherently limited appeal. And even driving enthusiasts routinely gravitate toward cars with superior performance specifications – the $31,015 Mazda asks for the tested optioned-up MX-5 Miata Grand Touring can buy you a lot of horsepower in a Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro. Or heck, even in a Toyota Camry. (The base Sport model starts from $24,915.)
But consistent with its 26-year heritage, the 2016 Miata simply doesn’t prioritize winning races, especially in a straight line. This car is for the driver who wants every minute of every driving experience to be a delight. This is the car for the driver who doesn’t want their performance machine to act bored if you aren’t using it to its full, high potential. This car is for the driver who wants to have fun while proceeding at the same pace as normal traffic.
Back in 1989, Car and Driver magazine wrote that the first Miata “has the kind of driving appeal that makes you jump in and take the long, twisty route to your local video-rental outlet—even when you don’t own a VCR.” Clearly a lot has changed since those words were penned. But the spirit behind them is alive and well in the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Why to buy it
The MX-5 Miata is and always has been a true delight to drive. The latest car is honed to almost perfection at its intended mission. There is no fault to find in the engine, the transmission, the suspension, or the steering, and few faults to find in the cabin that detract from the driving experience.
If you’ve seen the new Miata only in pictures, you might not have the complete sense of how compact this car is. It stands barely four feet tall, and at 154 inches long, it hides behind today’s Volkswagen Beetle with more than a foot to spare. Even the original VW is six inches longer than this Mazda.
You can be excused for the confusion. Few of today’s cars are as small as this one, due both to crash safety requirements and buyers’ demand for space. And some of the styling cues recall much larger vehicles, like the taillights that resemble a Jaguar XK convertible’s – a car that’s nearly three feet longer than the MX-5 Miata. Even a Porsche Boxster, perhaps the contemporary car closest in form and function to this Mazda, is roughly two inches taller, three inches wider, and 18 inches longer.
That Porsche, mind you, weighs nearly 600 pounds more than the MX-5 Miata, and has a base price more than twice as high ($52,100). If you want affordable droptop thrills, this Mazda’s only real competition is from a used car — and even then, a used Miata will be near the top of the list.
The new MX-5 retains the basic shape of its predecessors, but it departs from the details. The headlights are now angular and aggressive rather than rounded and cheery. The taillights adopted a more elaborate shape. And in the side profile view, you can see an undulating curve – cresting near the base of the front windshield, swooping down to offer larger side windows, then rising up again at the trunk. But Mazda steered clear of adorning the body with swoops and creases, and the previous Miata’s pronounced fenders have been banished.
The interior was similarly overhauled. Earlier Miatas had basic symmetrical dashboards with user-friendly controls but little design verve. Those cars’ interiors were designed to not annoy you while you focused on driving – a worthwhile goal, but one that made it easier for luxury carmakers to demand much higher prices. The 2016 MX-5, meanwhile, has an interior that’s nice to look at without compromising functionality.
As in most other recent Mazdas, there’s a low dashboard with audio controls sticking up from it (a large touchscreen on most models; a smaller radio unit on the base Sport). While not everyone loves the look – critics say it looks like a lazily slapped-on tablet – it let Mazda lower the Miata’s dashboard rather than raising it up to envelop the screen. The result is a purer interior layout than before, a minimalist aesthetic that’s a great fit for the car’s character. And except for it being slightly more awkward to reach audio controls that are now mounted between the front seats, it retains the goal of not annoying.
The cabin is also trimmed in higher-quality materials than before, with generous padded surfaces. An exception is hard plastic trim at the tops of the interior door panels that’s colored to match the car’s exterior paintwork. Not everyone will love it, especially on cars with less subdued colors than the tested “Ceramic Metallic” off-white/silver, but it avoids coming off as simply cheap.
Mazda’s manual-folding fabric roof – the only one presently available; Mazda didn’t continue the power-folding hardtop into the new generation – is another marvel of simplicity. Raising or lowering it takes one hand and takes about five seconds from the driver’s seat. Pull a latch, the windows drop automatically, and simply pull the top from behind you to raise it or push it backward to lower it. It latches securely and unambiguously.
During the weeklong test, this reviewer met up with a couple of British-roadster enthusiasts for a photo shoot – they brought some of the cars that inspired Mazda to build the MX-5 Miata. Watching the quick, seamless operation of the Mazda’s top, one shook his head: “Why couldn’t the British have thought of that?” Such older cars are also sometimes retrofitted with Miata parts; seats and sun visors were two examples mentioned.
Their trio of Triumphs are among the few cars that can make the Miata look big, but the Mazda still has a true low seating position, accentuated by the new upward curve of the hood. This reviewer, standing at about 5’11”, had no shortage of room with the driver’s seat all the way back. Any taller, though, and you’ll start to feel increasingly pinched – up to the point that you might have to rule out the MX-5. The seats are also not shaped for occupants of ample girth; they’re not aggressive racing seats, but they’re shaped carefully to gently hold you in place. Some occupants will simply spill out of them.
Mazda boosted passenger legroom by shifting the glovebox out of the dashboard; its instead in the vertical space between the front seatbacks. A pair of removable cupholders sprouts up from the center console below it. The passenger’s forward view is encumbered slightly by the electronic mounting piece for the MX-5’s rearview mirror, which is shifted to the right instead of sitting dead-center behind the mirror. In this car, the driver always comes first.
It’s taken so long to get to details of the 2016 MX-5 Miata’s driving dynamics in this section because it’s almost a given that they’re a reason to buy the car. Mazda didn’t revolutionize the car’s driving experience, but it didn’t have to – the Miata just had to get better in some other ways that didn’t detract. That was accomplished.
The MX-5’s little four-cylinder engine, adapted from the base version of the Mazda3 economy car, fires up with a cheery va-ROOM, a subtle preview of what’s coming next. The car’s 155-horsepower rating sounds almost pitiful these days, but the 2.0-liter I4 is always endearing in its behavior, in particular with the tested six-speed manual transmission. (Side note: A hill-holder function prevents the car from rolling backward at a stop. A six-speed automatic is also available). The engine revs happily, and strikes a great balance between providing a pleasant soundtrack and not disturbing the neighborhood. It can snarl, but never obnoxiously. Thanks to the MX-5’s low weight, reviewers with racetracks have achieved 0-60 mph acceleration runs of less than 6 seconds – no muscle car, but no slowpoke either.
Indeed, part of the MX-5’s charm is the approachability of its capabilities. You don’t need a racetrack to accelerate fairly hard in this Mazda. You can make the engine sing as you row through the precise short-throw transmission, having a blast without even needing to overtake the minivan whirring along in the lane beside you. Even cruising at a steady pace on the highway avoids being dull – driving 70 miles per hour with the engine working at 3,000 rpm in top gear while you’re basically sitting on the ground feels like driving an ordinary car at triple digits.
In general, the MX-5 makes it uncommonly easy to adhere to speed limits – and, rarer still, that’s not meant as an insult. The Mazda just provides plenty of fuel for the senses, yet it does so without beating up the driver. For instance, you feel every bump in the road, but you feel them as the Miata’s suspension confidently brushes them off and moves on. The car gives a great sense of control rather than impact harshness and the “oh-lord-did-I-break-it?” slams that some cars too readily deliver.
Of course, on an empty winding road, the Miata’s lively character comes even more alive. The steering is perfectly weighted and perfectly responsive – it doesn’t twitch just off-center, so a sneeze no longer puts you into the next lane, but it’s entirely natural in its operations. It’s possible that Miata buyers who race on tight autocross courses – and to be sure, there are many – could miss that extra little bit of steering response, but it proved well-suited for the road. Car and Driver reported that Mazda spent very little of its development time testing the MX-5 on a racetrack, so its racing aptitude is less by design than of a side effect to the car’s brilliant everyday behavior.
Notes jotted down during this weeklong test read: “So fun on a back road! And anywhere.”
Another piece of everyday goodness comes in the gas mileage, which jumped from an EPA-estimated 24 miles per gallon in mixed driving last year to 30 mpg for 2016 (both with the six-speed manual transmission). The 2016 MX-5 returns 27 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway in the EPA test, the latter encumbered somewhat by the transmission’s performance-focused gearing. (The automatic picks up two more highway mpg.)
Meanwhile, in a week of driving that included a mix of interstates, city and suburban driving, rush hour traffic, and empty back roads, the tested MX-5 comfortably exceeded those EPA ratings. As reported by the trip computer and confirmed with a manual calculation, the Mazda returned an outstanding 38.8 miles per gallon despite being frequently driven with no small amount of enthusiasm. Even Car and Driver, whose editors are known for particularly wild amounts of enthusiasm, averaged 32 mpg.
Mazda does strongly recommend premium gas in the 2016 Miata, as it did in the previous generation – cutting into the fuel savings a bit – but regular is allowed. This review and the EPA mileage tests were conducted using the requested premium fuel.
As noted, the base price for the 2016 MX-5 Miata is $24,915. The base Sport model includes 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning; power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; a six-speaker sound system with a USB port; cloth seat upholstery and leather trim on the steering wheel, shift knob, and handbrake; a cloth convertible top with a glass windshield and rear defroster; Bluetooth connectivity for phone calls and music; and LED headlights and taillights. Advanced keyless entry with push-button start is available for $130, and various appearance add-ons are also offered. Last year’s base Miata had only a five-speed manual transmission compared to upper trims’ six-speed; the pair of six-speed transmissions are now available across the line. The automatic transmission costs $1,480.
Buyers can also step up to either the Club or Grand Touring model, which are priced from $28,600 and $30,065, respectively. Both add 17-inch alloy wheels, the touchscreen infotainment system, and a nine-speaker sound system. The Club focuses on performance, with a stiffer suspension and limited-slip differential, plus some additional appearance items; it also has optional upgraded Brembo brakes. The Grand Touring instead amps up the luxury, with heated leather seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic climate control, a navigation system, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert (but, unusually for a new car, no rearview camera), and a lane-departure warning system. On the street at least, the tested Grand Touring certainly didn’t betray a weakness to its handling or braking.
Why to skip it
The primary reasons to skip the 2016 MX-5 Miata would be if a lightweight, modestly powered two-seat roadster either doesn’t meet your everyday needs or doesn’t align with your motoring interests.
The car’s limited practicality should be obvious, but buyers who overlook it might regret that decision. As noted earlier, tall or wide occupants won’t fit easily – perhaps at all. Getting in and out requires care and dexterity. There’s no rear seat, not even a tiny one for emergencies. The trunk can fit groceries or the right shape of suitcase, but it’s a petite little cubby at 4.6 cubic feet – small even for a performance car, and down 0.7 cubes from last year’s Miata. As noted, only a soft top is available. There’s no over-the-shoulder visibility on the driver’s side with the top up, and no available backup camera.
There are a number of performance cars that squeeze in enough versatility to get by as someone’s only car. Agile, powerful sedans and hatchbacks abound, as do coupes with at least a tiny rear seat. Even a Corvette has a huge trunk. The MX-5 Miata is far less likely to be viable as a household’s only car.
There’s also a matter of taste. The MX-5 Miata is brilliantly executed for what it is – but not everyone will want that. There’s no larger engine option for buyers who prefer more straight-line performance, and even if there was, you still wouldn’t find the tire-burning roar of a large-displacement V6 or V8. If you’re among the legions of performance car enthusiasts who have never understood the Miata’s appeal, it’s at least worth a test drive to see if its personality wins you over, but reasonable minds have always disagreed about what makes the most appealing performance car.
Buyers who do favor Mazda’s approach to performance will still find some complaints about the 2016 MX-5 Miata. Would the package really be spoiled by an optional turbocharger? Why limit the availability of the best performance parts to the car without heated seats, a handy feature to improve top-down comfort in cooler weather? Why not adorn the car in a dazzling array of colors, instead of a handful of muted shades: dark red, gray blue (Grand Touring only), gray (Club and Grand Touring only), white, off-white, and black? How about the interior – couldn’t Mazda offer a shade other than black?
Then there are some complaints that represent an intentional compromise. The thin seats – whose structure was reduced to save space and weight – weren’t the friendliest to this reviewer’s back after about an hour. Power seat adjustments are also unavailable, again to save weight. The trunklid – a thin, weight-saving piece of metal with an intricate set of struts and hinges that keep water from spilling into the cargo hold – closes with a tinny thunk.
Lastly, there are the small nitpicks that shouldn’t change anyone’s mind about buying the car but that Mazda would do well to address. The quiet turn signal is almost inaudible in a noisy convertible. The trunk release is fussy to reach below the driver’s knee, and the proximity key doesn’t unlock the trunk. The lane-departure warning system is so sensitive that it often wasn’t even obvious which side of the lane it believed the car was too close to; fortunately it’s at least easy to disable. The electronically rendered fuel and temperature gauges washed out easily.
What else is there?
The 2016 MX-5 Miata is in many ways in a class by itself. But if you stretch your definitions of a class to include various cars that are fun to drive, you do have some options.
There’s the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, a pair of mechanically identical rear-drive four-cylinder hardtop coupes that share the Mazda’s focus on sporty handling, at a similar price point. They add the versatility of a tiny rear seat but add several hundred pounds of weight. Acceleration specs are still similar thanks to to the Scion and Subaru’s 200 horsepower, but they lack the Miata’s joyful engine character and excellent gas mileage, and have comparatively downscale interiors, and trunk space isn’t that much better than the Mazda’s. They offers some extra practicality but are imperfectly executed for what they are; the two-seat droptop Miata, meanwhile, must be very close to its designers’ idea of perfection.
There’s the Mini, sold as a tiny hatchback or convertible and known for its spunky fun handling. It also offers powerful turbocharged engines and at least a small back seat. But unlike the Miata, Mini has lost some of its spunk as successive redesigns made the car gradually bigger and softer. And as a front-wheel-drive car, it fundamentally lacks the balance of the rear-drive Mazda. And thanks to expensive options, its prices can soar.
The Scion, Subaru, and Mini are the three competitors Mazda provides on its website’s competitive-comparison tool. But other alternatives do also exist:
There are a couple of zesty front-drive Ford hatchbacks – the ST performance versions of the Fiesta subcompact and Focus compact. Ferocious acceleration, tenacious handling and attainable prices make them performance bargains that still offer five-passenger seating (in a pinch) and decent amounts of cargo space. But the driving experience is still purer in the smaller, lighter, lower, rear-drive MX-5, if you’re willing and able to sacrifice the Fords’ versatility and acceleration.
Raise your price point out of the $20,000s and you might like the Nissan 370Z, available as a two-seat hatchback or convertible. It’s a cruder, less precise car than the Miata – both in its driving dynamics and its cabin – but handling is hardly terrible and its powerful V6 engine can still be enjoyable. The Nissan is an increasingly tough sell, though, given steady handling improvements to the less expensive, four-seat Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang, which have similar benefits but also don’t try to mimic the MX-5’s lightweight tossability.
Otherwise, you’re probably looking at sports cars priced in the $50,000s (or used versions of said cars) to find something that drives like a Miata. That’s the BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster, both of which are still bigger and heavier than this Mazda but are agile, precise, driver-focused two-seat roadsters. They justify their expense with additional creature comforts and available extra power, but even their customer base wouldn’t likely find the driving experience to be lacking in the new MX-5 Miata.
One close competitor is on the way, however: a Fiat convertible that will share many mechanical components with the MX-5 Miata but which is rumored to bring a more powerful engine. Pricing and other details for this car remain unknown, but especially if you like powerful engines and/or don’t love the Mazda’s styling, the upcoming Fiat could address your concerns.
Mazda has avoided trying to make its Miata into all things for all people, even by sports car standards. It’s a niche within a niche – people who can buy a tiny two-seat convertible and grin more broadly from a lithe zippy machine than a road-owning performance monster. But by protecting the purity of the car’s mission for 26 years, and further filing away at secondary concerns during car ownership, Mazda has ensured that that the 2016 MX-5 Miata continues to own that niche.
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More about the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata:
Gallery of exterior and interior photos
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $24,915
Version tested: Grand Touring
Version base price (MSRP): $30,065
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $31,015
Estimated transaction price as tested:* $30,160
Test vehicle provided by: Mazda North America
Length: 154.1 inches
Width: 68.3 inches
Height: 48.8 inches
Wheelbase: 90.9 inches
Weight: 2,332 pounds
Trunk volume: 4.6 cubic feet
Turning circle: 30.8 feet
Engine: 2.0-liter I4
– Horsepower: 155
– Torque: 148 pound-feet
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed manual
Drive wheels: Rear-wheel-drive
EPA city mileage: 27 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 34 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 30 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 38.8 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons
Assembly location: Japan
For more information: Mazda website
* Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.